November 04, 2005

Session Report: Introduction to concept mapping for PhD and staff

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Yesterday afternoon I taught a session on concept mapping to staff and PhD students as part of the ITS Training programme. This seemed to be a great success, both in the ideas that I presented, and in the use of the FreeMind open source Java based concept mapping tool.

Rather than a text based hand-out and lesson plan, I now always just use a concept map. This is given to the students in both an electronic format and on paper. The paper based handout contains several pages, each with a different set of nodes visible or hidden (following the planned path through the map). I start with a top level view, with all of the detail hidden. At this point I can check with the audience to see if the session matches their expectations, and if there are any sections they would like me to focus on. This approach is repeated as I drill down into detail through the rest of the session. Here's the top level for the concept mapping session:

Instead of immediately pliunging into the detail of node 1, we did a little exercise. Firstly, I introduced myself using a concept map that details interesting information about me (requires FreeMind to view) my work and my research. I made this available to the students, so that they could practice navigating and extending (adding to and annotating) a map. I then gave them an amusing scenario to play out in pairs, that would require them to create and use (in a discussion) a similar map about themselves.

This exercise illustrated some of the ways in which concept maps can be useful in planning, recording, and presenting to an unfamiliar audience. The students seemed to really enjoy it, and in fact several of them continued working on their maps after the session ended. Following up on the lessons learned from the exercise, we looked in detail at the second node of the presentation map "Why Concept Map" (after checking with the class, I skipped over the first node, which seemed un-necessary).

The first node is shown below:

And the second:

Out of these ideas for how to use maps, the nodes on "pattern discovery", "direct communication of ideas" and "frameworking writing" were of particular interest. I demonstrated a quite sophisticated map that I use for my philosophy research. I therefore focussed on these in the next two sections of the session, starting with node 3, "elements of a concept map", which covered the different types of element that must or can be used:

Next we moved onto the most important part of the session, node 4 "how to read or present a map". The first of the suggested techniques, "drilling down" was already obvious, as I had been using it throughout the session. This involves starting at the centre of the map, at the general level, and then moving down through increasing levels of detail as required (I check with the students to see if they need more detail). This is particularly good if you are presenting or writing to an audience that is unfamilar.

The second technique is "expanding out", which involves starting with a specific detail familiar to the audience, and then moving upwards to give that detail context, and across to connect it to other nodes. This is good if you have a specialised audience or audiences, and you want to show them the bigger picture.

These techniques are very powerful as means for frameworking presentations and writing. In particular, I recomended that when trying to create a document from a map, one should work out a path through the map (drilling down or expanding out), and rehearse it with someone. Make a commentary (written or recorded) as you go along.

Unfortunately we were now running out of time, so the coverage of the technical topics was limited. However, my message is fairly straightforwards:

  1. don't overlook pen and paper, or the use of whiteboards;
  2. MindJet MindManager is the best software for serious research work, with its fast intuitive approach and interoperability with Office;
  3. MindManager has limtations (no Mac or Linux version, too much functionality, and its expensive);
  4. the free alternative (almost a clone) is FreeMind which is open source, java based, has Mac and Linux versions, as well as a web applet, is interoperable with MindManager, and is entirely free and easy to download and install.

In fact, my recomendation was to use FreeMind until you really need some of the sophisticated functionality of MindManager. We used FreeMind during the session, and it was great. The ease with which nodes can be inserted and extended, using enter and insert, makes it the perfect tool for supporting fast thinking and planning. It's abilities with icons are a little limited. Moving nodes around isn't as slick as MindManager. But this not necessarily a blocker. Printing is also quite poor, but with a little investigation, I think I will be able to work it out.

If you like the sound of this session, then contact me a I am considering repeating it.

UPDATE: we now have a site licence for the very slick MindManager software. This is available to all staff and students.

- 4 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Ever since, I attended a workshop on mind mapping a few years back, I have found it an invaluable way of expressing/recording information.

    Everyone should know how to create/read these mind maps, and I am amazed they aren't used more frequently.

    04 Nov 2005, 15:09

  2. In what way is printing from FreeMind poor? I've never had a problem with it.

    08 Nov 2005, 10:07

  3. Robert O'Toole

    I've only tried to print a couple of times so far. I wanted to print out several views, with varying nodes hidden and visible. The first problem was that it didn't make full use of the available A4, but instead just printed it in the top right hand quarter. The second problem was that it printed some of the visible nodes but not others.

    I guess that there are some parameters that I need to set first?

    MindManager's printing is excellent, which it should be for £85 a copy. FreeMind seems just as good in every other way.

    08 Nov 2005, 12:48

  4. I haven't had either of those problems and I didn't need to set any parameters. But I guess you're using MS windows and the printing API must be different from unix – maybe there are windows-specific bugs.

    08 Nov 2005, 13:10

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